Selling out integrity not a sound business model


It must be great working for a big, sophisticated, forward-thinking operation like The Washington Post. Oh, to be able to afford to pay brilliant people to sit around and invent whole new, out-of-the-box ways to make a buck.

Why just the other day they came up with something called a "salon." For a mere $25,000, you could rub elbows at the home of Publisher Katharine Weymouth with Post reporters and editors, members of Congress and officials of the Obama administration. And if you buy 10 sponsorships at a total cost of $250,000, you get one free.

It would all be off-the-record, nonconfrontational, exclusive insider access with the movers and shakers, the policy shapers -- an opportunity to move the debate in your direction.

The Politico first reported on the Post salons and quoted from the flier the Post was sending around to potential high-dollar sponsors. The flier just reeks of the high-class, cosmopolitan refinement and style that we hicks from outside the Beltway could never achieve:

"Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate.

"Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. ... Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders.

"Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."

Actually, our crack marketing staff came up with a very similar idea for confabs on the lawn of the Review-Journal's publisher's home, but he turned thumbs down on sitting in the ice-water dunking booth, which was the only way to get hometown mover and shaker Harry Reid to show up.

Actually, we had a hard time finding many public officials and politicians willing to participate, since most of them refer to us privately as those bastards on Bonanza. Well, a few of them say it to our faces as well. (Should you put more credence in a newspaper that is cozy with the politicians or one that is not?)

We kicked around the idea of offering to have our editorial board meetings in that silo room at the Draft House up on Rancho Drive. We'd call it a "saloon," not the same cachet as a "salon," but certainly more our "Battle Born" style.

The flier might read: "Buy us a couple of rounds of those Big Dog microbrews and we'll agree to anything."

Too bad the higher-ups at the Post got cold feet. As the newspaper's ombudsman, Andy Alexander, explained in his blog: "For a storied newspaper that cherishes its reputation for ethical purity, this comes pretty close to a public relations disaster."

Andy, who I've worked with on American Society of Newspaper Editors committees, explained the problem for the ethically challenged, "The problem: The Post often decries those who charge for access to public officials. This raised the specter of a money-losing newspaper doing the same thing -- and charging for access to its own reporters and editors as well."

Publisher Weymouth released a statement saying, "We are always looking for new revenue streams, but we will pursue only avenues that uphold our high standards of journalism. We were planning to do a series of dinners and had requested newsroom participation but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity. Sponsorship of events, like advertising in the newspaper, must be at arm's length and cannot imply control over the content or access to our journalists."

Even though he had participated in meetings discussing setting up the salons, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told Politico, "You cannot buy access to a Washington Post journalist."

The salons were summarily canceled. That saloon idea never went anywhere, either.

OK, that money-making idea didn't work. Back to the big drawing board.

Publish a beefcake calendar? Too much cake and not enough beef.

Let's see, selling editorial stances to the highest bidder on eBay? Cuts out the subtlety of a salon and all that ethics nicety. Gets directly to the point and the bottom line. But does anyone really want to know what their opinion is really worth on the open market?

Besides, once you've sold your integrity, it really isn't worth as much the next time.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

 

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